Projective Tests in Psychological Assessment – The Human Figure Drawing Tests

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

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Goodenough (1926) originally introduced the Draw-a-Man (DAM) Test to assess developmental level or intelligence in children based on indices measuring spatial interpretation and fine motor skills. However, Karen Machover (1949) considered such drawings to be a rich source of clinical information and suggested that human figure drawings, the Draw-a-Person Test (DAP), be used as projective test of personality. Interpretation of human figure drawings is largely based on psychoanalytic theory. Based on this theory, features of drawings are thought to represent the artist's psychological make-up. For example, drawing figures with large eyes indicates a concern that others are watching, suggesting suspiciousness or even paranoia. Examinees who draw figures with wide hips may have a preoccupation with sex; such drawings by males may suggest latent homosexuality. Drawings of hands with conspicuous fingers and thumbs may suggest a preoccupation with masturbation.

Machover's use of projective drawing tests quickly became popular. Lubin, Wallis, and Paine (1971) surveyed outpatient psychological clinics regarding their test use and found that Machover's DAP had become the fifth most widely used psychological test. More recently, both Piotrowski and Keller (1989) and Watkins et al., (1995) found that projective drawings rank among the 10 most frequently used tests. In addition, several variations of the DAP have been developed, such as the House-Tree-Person Technique (HTP) (Buck, 1948, 1981), the Draw-a-Family Test (Hulse, 1951), and the Kinetic Family Drawing (Bums & Kaufman, 1970). Of these, the most widely used is the HTP. Specifically, Piotrowski and Keller (1989) found that the HTP was the seventh most frequently used psychological test.


The HTP requires that the examinee produce three drawings -- a tree, a house, and a person. Few restrictions are made, allowing the subject to make the drawings of various sizes, using different drawing materials, and so on. The HTP is interpreted psychoanalytically, like the DAP, with features of the drawings representing aspects of the examinee's psyche. According to Buck (1981), each drawing taps into different aspects of the individual: the house yields information about home life, the tree provides information about the environment, and the person reflects interpersonal relationships.

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Unfortunately, empirical research on human figure drawings has consistently failed to support their reliability and validity. In her book introducing the DAP as a projective personality test, Machover (1949) did not explicitly address the reliability of the DAP. She considered the validity of the test to have been demonstrated in "thousands of drawings" in clinical settings. Conversely, Swensen (1968), Roback (1968), and Harris (1972) reviewed the empirical research on projective human figure drawings and concluded that there is little support for their personality interpretations. Although they argued that the quality of a drawing may be used as a "rough screening device, and as a gross indicator of adjustment" (Swensen, 1968, p. 463), they found little evidence to support Machover's specific personality interpretations.

Similarly, there is a clear lack of empirical support for the reliability and validity of other comparable projective drawing tests. For example, reviews of the HTP (e.g., Haworth, 1970; Killian, 1984) have concluded that the test has little empirical support. In fact, Buck (1981) noted that it is not even possible to conduct research to validate the HTP. For these reasons, scientifically minded clinical psychologists are skeptical about the HTP, despite its popularity in applied clinical settings.

References

Beck, S. J. (1944). Rorschach's Test I: Basic Processes. New York, NY: Grune & Stratton.

Buck, J. N. (1948). The H-T-P technique, a qualitative and quantitative scoring manual. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 4 (Monogr. Suppl. 5)

Buck, J.N. (1981). The House-Tree-Person Technique–Revised Of The Human Figure. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.

Burns, R.,& Kaufman,S. (1970).Kinetic Family Drawings (K-F-D): An introduction to understanding children through kinetic drawings. New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel

Goodenough, F.L. (1926). Measurement of intelligence by drawings. World Book Co.

Harris, D. B. (1978). Review of the Kinetic Family Drawing Test. In 0. K. Buros (Ed.), The eighth mental measurements yearbook. Highland Park, NJ. Gryphon Press.

Haworth, M. R. (1961). Repeat study with a projective film for children. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 25:78-83.

Hulse, W. C. (1951). The Emotionally Disturbed Child Draw His Family. The Quarterly Child Behavior, 3, 152-174.

Killian, G. A. (1984). House-Tree-Person Technique. Test critiques, 1, 338-353.

Lubin, B., Wallis, R. R., & Paine, C. (1971). Patterns of psychological test usage in the United States: 1935-1969. Professional Psychology, 2(1), 70–74. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0031544

Machover, K. (1951). Personality Projection in the Drawing of the Human Figure. Springfield, IL: Thomas.

Piotrowski, C., & Keller, J. W. (1989). Psychological testing in outpatient mental health facilities: A national study. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 20(6), 423–425. https://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7028.20.6.423

Robach, H. B. (1968). Human Figure Drawings: Their utility in the clinical psychologist's aramentarium for personality assessment. Psychological Bulletin. 70. 1-19.

Swenson, C. H. (1968). Empirical evaluations of Human Figure Drawings. Psychological Bulletin. 70, 20-40.

Watkins, C. E., Campbell, V. L., Nieberding, R. & Hallmark, R. (1995). Contemporary practice of psychological assessment by clinical psychologists. Professional Psychology: Researchand Practice, 26: 54-60.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

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